I admit that I didn't fully understand the 2021 BMW 530e — the plug-in hybrid version of the company's midsize sedan lineup — when it first arrived for a week of testing.
Don't get me wrong. I was immediately impressed by its design, quality and ride. The 530e is a BMW, after all, and their cars and SUVs keep getting better every year.
But the 530e only gets 22 miles of range on a full charge of electricity, which seemed low to me for a car that costs between $57,200 and $70,485 (as tested). Heck, the Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid minivan can go 32 miles on a full charge, while the Toyota RAV4 plug-in hybrid SUV achieves a remarkable 42 miles. Beside that, the battery pack reduces the trunk space in the 530e.
But then, while reading previous reviews to learn more about the 530e, Cars.com Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman set clued me in. In Europe, the goal isn't only about saving money on gas:
"European plug-in hybrid vehicles like the 2021 BMW 530e tend to have a pretty specific purpose in mind: They're meant to allow drivers to enter European cities that have congestion charges without being charged. Some cities like London or Antwerp charge drivers to enter the city centers in a car, but that charge is lessened or waived if your car is a zero-emissions vehicle," he wrote in a thoughtful review.
Since the 530e can go some distance on electricity alone, that cuts the cost for owners who need to do business in the city centers — owners, who needless to say, are wealthy enough to be able to afford high-end German road cars.
Here in America, federal and state financial incentives help the 530e pencil out. The base plug-in hybrid version costs $4,000 more than the gas-only version, but the incentives can save far more than that — creating a tempting options for reducing your carbon footprint in style.
In fact, the 2021 version features some serious upgrades over last year's model. They include an increase in all-electric range from 19 miles and a significant boost in horsepower. A new XtraBoost feature generates an extra 40 ponies for up to 10 seconds after you floor the accelerator — making the 530e slightly faster than the gas-powered version.
The plug-in hybrid system in the 530e is different than others. It does not have a purely electric front or rear axle. Instead, an electric motor is geared into the transmission. Such a setup was originally consider a "mild hybrid" and largely dismissed because it only increased mileage slightly while providing no additional power. BMW has revolutionized that, providing more power and the opportunity to significantly increase mileage, depending on how frequently it is recharged.
Despite the additional power, the 2021 530e is not a really a full-fledged sport sedan. Although ours was equipped with the optional M package, it did not include the lower and stiffer suspension. That was fine with me, given how unforgiving such suspensions can be on the poorly maintained streets in my town. BMW will gladly sell you the V8-powered M550i xDrive if that's what you want.
Although it is classified as a midsize, the 530e looks and feels much larger than that. It is low, long and wide, with an upswept spoiler at the end of its trunk that gives it an athletic poise. It offers enough interior room to carry five adults in comfort, including an impressive amount of space in the rear seats. All materials are top quality, of course, and this year's larger 12.3-inch display screen is easy to read and operate.
And of course the 530e is available with practically every advanced automotive technology, from a wealth of safety features to a Parking Assistance Package and voice controls.
When the first plug-in hybrids began to appear, they did not need to be fancy to generate interest. The novelty of being able to drive a certain amount on electricity-alone before switching over to fuel-efficient hybrid mode was compelling enough. But now the race is on to blend that technology with genuine luxury and a quality ride. The 2021 BMW 530e easily meets that goal.
2021 BMW 530e
Base price: $57,200
Price as tested: $70,485
Type: Plug-in hybrid midsize sedan
Drivetrain: Twin-turbocharged 2.0-liter inline 4 and one electric motors (288 hp, 310 lbs-ft total)
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Modes: Electric, Hybrid, Sport
EPA estimated mileage: 64 MPGe/26 gasoline only
Overall length: 117.1 inches
Curb weight: 4308 pounds
Final assembly: Dingolfing, Germany
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